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Friday, March 30, 2007

Wide receiver analysis

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old "best player available" mantra, let's be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The wide receivers.

The Steelers went hard and heavy at the wide receiver position in last year's draft, taking Santonio Holmes in the first round and Willie Reid in the third.

That would tend to lean against them taking a receiver at some point in this year's draft, but given new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians statements that he would like to spread the field out more often this season than the Steelers have in the past, the team could be in the market to upgrade at wide receiver if the value is there.

Also, Sean Morey's jump to Arizona leaves the team – which usually likes to carry five receivers on the active roster – with an opening.

We know that Hines Ward is a given as the team's No. 1 receiver and that Holmes came into his own in the second half of last season to grab the No. 2 role. But behind those two there are some question marks.

Reid missed most of his rookie season with a nagging foot injury, while Nate Washington struggled at times with his concentration, dropping several touchdown passes. Cedrick Wilson, meanwhile, has been functional, at best, in his role as the No. 2/3 receiver.

New head coach Mike Tomlin said recently that he’s been talking to Holmes about making a big jump in his second year in the league. Holmes caught 49 passes for 824 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season, but the bulk of that came in the second half. In the team’s final nine games Holmes caught 33 passes for 579 yards and both of his touchdowns. If he can just continue at that pace, he’ll not only be a nice compliment to Ward, he could wrest the role of No. 1 receiver away from him by year's end.

The team would be looking for a similar jump from Reid had his rookie season not been a washout. As it is, the Steelers will likely look for the speedy rookie to take over some of the return duties from Holmes, who is too valuable to expose on punt and kickoffs on a consistent basis. Plus, Reid was better in those duties in training camp than Holmes last year anyway.

As for Washington, his overall numbers of 35 receptions for 624 yards and four touchdowns don't look bad when you consider that last season was basically his rookie year as well. Though he was with the team in 2005, he barely saw any action and could be looking at a jump in production this season as well. It's easy to look at his end zone drops and be critical. But the fact is, he was getting open in those situations against NFL coverage, which is a positive.

Wilson caught 37 passes for 504 yards and one touchdown last season, but lost his starting spot to Holmes in the last month of the season. He'll battle with Washington this year for the No. 3 spot. Though he's making a lot of money to be a No. 3 or 4 guy, he's a veteran at a position the Steelers are pretty young at – especially if they bring in another rookie – which can't be overlooked.

Perennial practice squader Walter Young and Mr. August, Lee Mays, each were around for a cup of coffee at times last season, but neither is in the team’s long-term plans.

Given Ward's age – he turned 31 earlier this month – and his physical playing style, it wouldn't be a stretch for the team to begin looking down the road at life without their all-time leading receiver. All those hits he dishes out and takes have to have an affect on his body.

Ward realizes this as well, hence his outspokeness about the team's release of linebacker Joey Porter. Ward knows that he could find himself in a similar situation within the next couple of years if/when he reaches the end of the road. That would be a tough pill to swallow for both the team, Ward and fans.

With all of this in mind, look for the Steelers to address the wide receiver position with a mid-to-late pick in the draft.

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